City Council Chairman Sterling Tucker, calling the city's vote-counting system a "farce," said yesterday that he will ask the D.C Superior Court to throw out the results of the Sept. 12 primary and order a new election.
"I don't care who wants to call it sour grapes," said Tucker, who apparently placed second in the District's Democratic mayoral primary behind front-runner Marion Barry. "I don't care who wants to doubt my motives. I believe the people of this city deserve an honest election run by somebody who can count."
Tucker's announcement at a midday news conference followed Thursday's disclosure that as many as 7,000 ballots had not been tabulated because they could not be "read" by the city's electronic counting machines. These "unread" ballots threw the Democratic primary results into doubt, adding confusion to a much-delayed vote count already marred by other incidents.
As city election officials slowly began tabulating these previuosly "unread" ballots yesterday, Barry maintained his apparent lead over Tucker and Mayor Walter E. Washington. Barry, an at-large City Council member, has already declared himself the winner of the mayoral primary.
By yesterday evening, an unofficial count including some of the previously "unread" ballots showed:
Barry . . . 31.898
Tucker . . . 30.418
Washington . . . 28.932
The ballot count, which took place in the noisy, crowded City Council chambers in the District Building , was expected to resume this morning. As election workers opened and sorted through hundreds of ballot boxes, some said it was difficult to distinguish the "unread" ballots from the others that had similar electronic markings.
Tucker's demand for a new court-ordered election set off further legal and political controversy.
Tucker and his lawyer, R. Kenneth Mundy, said they plan to go into Superior Court in an attempt to stop the city's Board of Elections and Ethics from officially certifying the primary's results, as the board had been expected to do next Wednesday. Mundy said they would file the lawsuit on Monday "or as soon as possible."
Tucker and his lawyer said they intended to provide affidavits and additional documents that would show widespread irregularities in the primary votes - abuses, that would be sufficient, they said, to have the election's outcome nullified. They intended initially to seek a temporary restraining order to prevent certification.
Winfred R. Mundle, the election board's general counsel, contended in an interview, however, that Tucker's move would be premature and impermissible under the city's voting laws. The law, Mundle noted, allow any voter to seek an order by the D.C. Court of Appeals setting aside it has been certified by the elections board. The law says such a petition may be filed "within seven days after the board certifies the results."
Mundle said he would employ this statutory provision as the basis of the elections board's defense against Tucker's planned suit.
Tucker's legal move would follow a similar suit filed Thursday by City Council candidate Robert Artisst, who trailed incumbent William R. Spaulding in a tight race for the council's Ward 5 seat, according to unofficial tabulations. Artisst asked the Superior Court to block certification of the Ward 5 results because of alleged irregularities, including a shortage of ballots in one precinct. A court hearing has been set for Monday.
Tucker's announcement yesterday drew a sharp rejoinder from council member Barry. In an interview, Barry termed Tucker's assertions "ridiculous" and added, "He just wants a second shot."
Later, Barry called a news conference to reitereate his view that "the people have chosen me."
Barry, in turn, drew a political potshot from the apparent winner of the Republican primary, Arthur A. Fletcher, a former assistant secretary of labor in the Nixon administration and an urban affairs adviser in the Ford White House. Fletcher, who will face the winner of the Democratic primary in the November mayoral election, charged that Barry was "directly responsible" for the ballot-counting problems.
"Mr. Barry is chairman of the Revenue Committee of the City Council," Fletcher said at a news conference. "An alert chairman would have held hearings to determine if we were ready to have an election. He would have made sure that the election was not just fair and accurate (but) that it looked fair and accurate."
Mayor Washington issued a cautiously worded statement last night in which hw said that the city's vote-tabulating mishaps "apparently have shaken public confidence" and called upon the election board to "act immedaitely" to assure the public that its final tally will be accurate.
Nevertheless, in an oblique swipe at Tucker, Washington asserted that it would be premature for the city to seek court intervention in the election board's precedures. Washington, instead, urged the board to draw up a written account of what it has done to correct recent vote-counting errors and grant candidates and citizens an opportunity to comment on its reports berfore te primary's results are certified.
Election board officials acknowledged yesterday that the ballot count had become severely bogged down, attributing the board's difficulties both to mechanical mishaps and human failings.
"I am not to say that there were not management problems," Shari B. Kharash, the election board head, said at a board meeting. She had returned from her vacation home in Zepp, Va., for today's counting.
But officials contended that an accurate tabulation can eventually be produced. James L. Denson, a Republican member of the electioin board, said, "I don't think there has been any question in the accuracy of the count - once you get it."
At his news conference, Tucker said that the election tabulation had been so seriously marred that he would still go to court to seek a new election evenif the final totals showed him to be the primary victor.
"I would not accept a certification under the process as it now stands.I would not be able to function, I don't believe, effectively in office with the public's not having confidence in the election process itself," Tucker said.
In calling for anew election, Tucker enumerated 16 evident or alleged problems that have beset the vote tabulation. These ranged from the disclosure of the "unread" ballots to the inability of some voters to vote in one precinct because of a temporary dearth of ballots. Tucker said that a few instances of double voting have been uncovered; that some names appeared twice or more on lists of registered voters: that 54 ballots could not be counted because they had mysteriously been found in a file drawer, and 34 ballots were in dispute because they had not been secured in a ballot box.
One tradition remedy for alleged election irregularities - in addition to ordering a new election - is a recount. Tucker said he rejected this alternative because the election board, he asserted, "is in utter turmoil."
"I seriously doubt we will ever really know who won," Tucker said, seated, in shirt sleeves, at his District Building desk. Accusing the election board of "unbelievable incompetence," he said he would discount whatever tabulation the board ultimately announces. "I don't care if it shows that I won. I won't believe that count."
Barry had criticized election board chief Kharasch Thursday, warning that she faces dismissal if he is elected mayor, but yesterday Tucker added his voice to those attacking her. Tucker urged Kharasch to ask the mayor to withdraw her name from consideration for a new term before the City Council takes action on her nomination next month.
Kharasch declined yesterday as she had Thursday, to respond to her critics, saying only, "I am not commenting at this time."
The mammoth job of tabulating by hand the 7,000 unread ballots was divided into two parts: sorting out the unread ballots from the approximately 90,000 ballots cast during the Sept. 12 primary, and then counting them.
An air of noisy confusion filled the City Council chambers, where about 60 sorters - mostly high school and college students hired as temporary employes - sat at folding tables strewn with cardboard boxes and loose ballots. Campaign observers, election officials and reporters swarmed around the tables as some of the sorters complained they had trouble distinguishing "read" from "unread" ballots.
Election board specialists repeatedly told the sorters to look for a short, heavy blue or red mark at the bottom of the reverse side of the ballot - the mark indicating that the ballot was read as empty or blank by the Valtec scanning device.
But many of the ballots had solid or intermittent lines down all or portions of the reverse side. Some sorters initially began including these as "unread" ballots. Other sorters ignored ballots with short heavy marks at the bottom and sorted out only those with longer extended lines.
"This is ridiculous," said Gerald Wallette, a Tucker, campaign worker. "There's something wrong witthe machines . . . there are all kinds of marks. Some are heavy, some are light, some are long, some are short.
Donovan Gay, campaign director for Patricia Press in her closely contested race with incumbent Nadine Winter for the Ward 6 City Council seat, filed a written protest with the election board asking that the ballots be scrutinized once again by Valtec experts.
Election board systems analyst Richard Owens said that the various marks on the ballots were caused by the ballots being wrinkles or creased to varying degrees and by differing sensitivities of individual Valtec machines.
After the initial confusion, the sorting process smoothed out. Three Valtec specialists roamed about the sorting room, examining questionable ballots and deciding which were "read" or "unread."
"This is gradually being straightened out," said Barry Campaign observer Phil Ogilvie. "After all, they brought in people off the street to do this job for the first time . . . but it's working well now."
Election administrator Mary Rodgers said workers hired for sorting job were mostly high school and college students recruited for her by "people I know at various places in the city." She said most also worked at the central counting operation in the Martin Luther King Library on the noght of the Sept. 12 primary, and thus have had some experience.
In contrast to the sorting process yesterday, counting of the unread ballots went off with hardly a hitch. About two-dozen workers - mostly seasoned precinct captains and League of Women Voters members - did the hand tallying.